Vendors Need to Rethink Licenses

Wouldn't it be nice if companies stood behind their products instead of their unfair licensing agreements?

Its funny. Most of us spend a lot of time worrying about things that are highly unlikely to happen. In contrast, we often spend little or no time worrying about things that almost certainly will happen. How do you explain the guy who breaks into a sweat thinking about his upcoming air travel, yet when he drives to the airport, he speeds through heavy traffic and swerves from lane to lane, thereby exposing himself to exponentially higher risk than he will have on his flight, if he lives long enough to catch it?

With this human trait in mind, Ive hit on a great business plan. Im going to offer insurance against things that are highly unlikely to happen. If youre up late at night in fear of seeing your future marriage to supermodel Heidi Klum fall apart when she dumps you for the pimply faced kid who bags your groceries, give me a call. If youre worried about pulling a muscle while commanding the first manned space flight to Jupiters moons, I have a plan for you.

These policies will also be available to businesses, which, like people, also seem to want protection against things that probably will never happen. Just a few weeks ago, Novell announced that it will indemnify its Linux users against possible legal action by SCO or other parties that claim Linux contains their intellectual property. This move followed similar protections that HP offered its Linux users last year.

While SCO has threatened plenty, it hasnt brought legal action against any company that uses Linux. And outside of possible high-profile targets such as Google, its highly unlikely that any company will ever face a lawsuit for using Linux. But clearly, Novell and HP thought it was important to soothe customer fears by offering insurance. Customers, after all, probably asked for it.

Its a little weird, though, when you take into account the other products these companies sell. For example, Novell is willing to go out on a limb to say youre safe in the highly unlikely event that you get sued for using Linux. But in the license agreement for its flagship NetWare product, it states: "Neither Novell nor any of its licensors, subsidiaries, or employees will in any case be liable for any special, incidental, consequential, indirect, tort, economic or punitive damages arising out of the use of or inability to use the software, including without limitation loss of profits, business or data, even if advised of the possibility of those damages."

This means that in the much more likely case that you run into a security hole or bug in NetWare that causes you to lose data, uptime and real money, youre out of luck and indemnified against nothing.

I dont mean to pick on Novell. This is boilerplate stuff that can be found in pretty much every user license agreement for all commercial software. But one would think that if companies take the trouble to protect you against things that arent likely to happen, they should work much harder to protect you against things that are likely to happen. However, these companies know that you have learned to accept the unfairness of software licensing and to put up with the fact that if problems in software cost money and uptime, its just a risk—your risk—of doing business.

The other thing they realize is that the threat of an SCO lawsuit could deter companies from buying Linux-based systems. Thats bad news for HP, which is telling customers they can afford to buy more HP hardware running Linux than they can running a rival OS. Novell, for its part, is keen to sell consulting and support services to customers who buy Linux-based systems.

Wouldnt it be nice if companies stood behind their products, instead of their unfair licensing agreements? Maybe its time to ask them to indemnify you against eventualities that probably will occur in the course of using their products.

These are just a few things for you to think about as you work out the financing for the purchase of your personal supersonic luxury jet. Oh, in case youre worried about that plane getting hijacked by aliens from Andromeda, Im working out the details of an insurance policy covering that.

eWEEK Labs Director Jim Rapozas e-mail address is